time: the gateway to our freedom or the chains that incarcerate us?

Earlier this week I met a friend of mine for lunch and she started talking about the way we in Western society are obsessed with time. Time crops up constantly in our everyday language. We’re either running on time or behind time, we’re efficient time managers or time wasters, there is never enough time, we wish we had more time, we save time and so on. We constantly monitor time using watches, phones, ipods, computer screens, wall clocks, microwave clocks and clocks in our cars. We break our days into small subsets of time, in which we expect to get things done. An hour for this meeting, fifty minutes to catch up with a friend, three hours to work on a project. And in an age where our lives are characterised by constant busyness, I see countless articles propagating the virtues of scheduling our time to sleep, eat, spend time with loved ones and even to have sex.

How and why did we get to the point where the necessities of life (sleeping, eating) and life’s greatest pleasures (spending time with our loved ones, sex) have to be slotted into our schedule? How romantic to be lying in bed with our playmate and looking at our watch and saying, sorry honey, twenty minutes is up, I have to go make a conference call now. Laters!

From our first day at school we are taught to stop daydreaming and to start following a schedule. We are given due dates and deadlines and key learning goals and progress reports. Somewhere along the line we forget how to play, to be involved, to be present, and instead we’re constantly rushing towards the next finish line.

I myself am a chronic time management junkie. My Apple gadgets were the answer to my neurotic, organisational prayers because I can colour code, sync, and coordinate my calendar from almost any location. It looks pretty. It also can feel overwhelming. And these days, with an autoimmune condition that can flare up at any time, scheduling is mostly futile.

For years though, I planned out my life until it was so full, I scarcely had time to breathe. My body gave me several warning signs that I needed to change something, but did I heed them? Hell no! In 2010 I was studying law full time, working as a swimming teacher twenty hours per week and co-coordinating the state branch of a youth climate NGO. In order to “save time”, I used to hop out of the pool at 8pm after my last class, pull some clothes over my wet swimmers and ride my bike home in the dark (in the middle of winter).

Unsurprisingly, I contracted pneumonia. My doctor gave me a prescription for some heavy duty meds and off I went to continue doing everything on my schedule. My pneumonia got worse until one morning I couldn’t get out of bed. My doctor told me to stop working or he would forcibly send me to hospital. So I followed his orders, kind of. I stopped teaching swimming for about three weeks, slowed down on the NGO work and somehow crawled to the end-of-semester finish line. As soon as my pneumonia started to clear up, I contracted bronchitis.

Are you starting to see a trend here? I wasn’t. And I didn’t until the end of 2013, a full three and a half years after I contracted pneumonia. In that three and a half years, I went head-first into a tree whilst mountain biking and experienced months of unexplained dizziness that stopped me from riding my bike, driving a car, walking properly, reading or even stringing a sentence together. Then I broke my shoulder, I spent a month in bed exhausted and then, finally, I started the run around between doctors that lead to my Hashimotos diagnosis. Every time I became unwell, I had been trying to balance a totally unrealistic workload that fell apart with my health.

Reflecting back, I ignored an important lesson for a long time. Cramming our lives with stuff, pushing ourselves to keep to a rigid schedule and constantly monitoring the clock is unnatural and harms us in the long-run. Now if you were to point out that I have been particularly daft and made some very silly life choices in regards to my commitments, I wouldn’t argue. You probably would have seen this coming sooner than me. However I think most of us have a tendency to criticise ourselves pretty harshly when it comes to time management. After all, it’s been drummed into us since we were small to not “waste time”.

I am continually trying to reframe my thinking on this issue, with the help of my friendly associate, Hashi! Every evening this week I have set my alarm for 7.30am and planned out the next day in my calendar. Every morning this week, I have gotten out of bed at 9am, needing eleven hours of sleep to function, and proceeded to achieve very little of my day plan. It’s frustrating. This disease means that I physically cannot plan my day or control my productivity with any certainty. And at the same time, this disease is the ultimate lesson. Cultivating a gentle attitude towards myself and flowing with the day is the only way to move forward, the only way I can get anything done.

We all learn at our own pace, but if there is one thing I could ask everyone to put in their mental wastepaper basket, it would be time management guilt. Throw it out. It’s way past its use by date. Enjoy languidly sitting outside reading the paper and drinking a coffee. Don’t check the clock when you’re playing with the dog or enjoying the company of your loved ones. Don’t worry about getting everything done on your day plan. Relish your food, the fuel for your life. And, this is a biggie- learn how to say No. No to overcommitment, No to the social event that is going to take precious hours of your life that you don’t really want to go to anyway, No to the volunteer commitment that you feel obligated (not excited) to do, and No to guilt about all of the above.

Time will chain me no longer. I hope it won’t chain you either.